Vaping – or the use of e-cigarettes – has become more and more popular in Canada, but a University of Alberta smoking cessation expert says far more research on the potential risks is needed.
“It took us 50 years to learn that conventional cigarettes cause lung cancer – 50 years… We can’t decide on the danger or lack of danger related to inhaling chemicals into our lungs until we have long-term data,” said Barry Finegan, a smoking cessation expert and anaesthesiologist at the University of Alberta.
Vaping is the use of a battery-powered device to inhale vapour.
“E-cigarettes produce an aerosol,” Finegan explained. “The diameter of the particle size allows the chemicals contained in that e-liquid to enter right into the depth of the lung.”
“Obviously, we’re not designed to inhale chemicals into our lungs at all and the optimal situation would be that we don’t do that.”
However, he said if a chronic smoker had tried every other option to quit and hadn’t been successful, e-cigarettes could be an option, but only as a last resort.
“If that alternative works for you, you should probably give it an attempt, except you need to be careful about the source of the e-liquid and the reliability of the device.”
Last November, the federal government amended the existing Tobacco Act and renamed it the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, hoping to regulate the manufacturing, sale, labelling and promotion of the devices.
Finegan hopes regulations will also address some big quality control issues.
“There’s no quality control around what is exactly in the liquid that is being used… so it’s difficult for me to tell you with any certainty what the dangers are of a specific e-liquid or indeed the use of a specific device. There have been dangerous chemicals found in e-liquids and those are liquids that have variable composition,” Finegan said.
“It really is the blind leading the blind in terms of what exactly is in the e-liquid.”
Customers have reported explosions and accidental nicotine poisoning with vaping.
Finegan believes the consumer should have a clear idea of what the e-liquid’s chemical composition is.
“In Alberta and throughout Canada, there’s a lot of e-liquids with nicotine added to the liquid,” he said. “It is illegal to sell e-liquid with nicotine so there’s no precise chemical process for the addition of that nicotine.”
And vapes and e-cigarettes – an industry estimated to be worth $32 billion worldwide by 2021 – are being targeted towards youth, Finegan says.
“The industry behind the e-cigarette business is the same industry selling conventional cigarettes. So I think we need to be very careful and very alert,” he said.
Data from the recently released 2015 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey indicate that in 2015, 26 per cent of Canadian youth aged 15 to 19 reported having ever tried an e-cigarette, up from 20 per cent in 2013.
“It may well be that, in some jurisdictions, that e-cigarette use amongst youth is out-stripping conventional cigarette use.”
That’s why his team is looking for at least 40 people who already vape and are between the ages of 15 and 24 to take part in a research project. It will study attitudes towards e-cigarettes and whether vaping tends to result in actual smoking addiction.
“Why did they start smoking? What do they know about what’s contained in the e-liquids they’re using? Where are they obtaining the e-liquids? Are they using nicotine in their e-liquids? Are they aware of any of the health concerns related to e-cigarettes? And whether or not use of e-cigarettes alters their perception of conventional cigarettes.”
He says many youth start smoking e-cigarettes believing they are “better” than conventional cigarettes.
“I’m pretty old school about what the lungs are for: to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide,” Finegan said.
“Any process of inhaling chemical containing vapour, aerosols or smoke into the lung is going to carry with it risk down the road of damage to the lung.”